Scott Bordow: If the Cardinals are going to improve in 2009, their defense has to stop drawing comparisons to teams like the Bengals, Chiefs and Lions.
From the 2008 NFL season, which team doesn’t belong with the others?
The Arizona Cardinals.
The Cincinnati Bengals.
The Kansas City Chiefs.
The Cleveland Browns.
The Cardinals, right? They won the NFC championship and went to the Super Bowl. The Bengals, Chiefs and Browns had a combined record of 10-37-1.
And yet, the teams shared a rather dubious statistic: They were the only four clubs that had fewer quarterback sacks than touchdown passes allowed.
The Browns, for example, gave up 19 TD passes and had 17 sacks. The Cardinals were even worse, allowing a league-high 36 scores through the air while registering 31 sacks.
Even the 0-16 Detroit Lions got to the quarterback more often than it allowed a touchdown pass.
It’s incredible that the Cardinals went as far as they did given the defense’s shortcomings.
“It seemed like every time the ball went up in the air it was either a long completion, a penalty or a touchdown,” nose tackle Bryan Robinson said. “We were the type of team where our defense needed our offense to score.”
Anyone think that formula will work a second straight season?
Yeah. Me, either.
Let’s be honest: The Cardinals are Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Ken Whisenhunt’s fertile offensive imagination. They’ll score a lot of points and drive defensive coordinators batty.
But for this team to truly reach its potential – or even top last year’s 9-7 record – the defense has to be a different animal. The Cardinals allowed 26.6 points per game in the regular season last year. Do that again, and January will be a very lonely month at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“I really believe we come in with the confidence that we can get it done,” said linebacker Bertrand Berry, who led the team with five sacks last year. “I think the playoff stretch really proved to ourselves that we can go out and play dominating defense. You hope that can carry over.”
There’s no question the defense stepped up in the postseason – with the obvious exception of Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive in the Super Bowl. It allowed 22.2 points per game and was the difference in the divisional contest at Carolina, forcing quarterback Jake Delhomme into six turnovers.
But the same defense gave up 56 points to the New York Jets, 37 to the New York Giants, 48 to Philadelphia, 35 to Minnesota and 47 to New England.
“It was kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde,” Robinson said.
Whisenhunt knew the defense needed to get better. That’s why he fired coordinator Clancy Pendergast and promoted Bill Davis. Why cornerback Bryant McFadden was signed as a free agent. Why the team’s three draft picks after Beanie Wells were spent on defensive players: outside linebacker Cody Brown (who’s out for the year), safety Rashad Johnson and cornerback Greg Toler.
Still, the questions persist. Where will the pass rush come from? And if the Cardinals can’t get to the quarterback, will teams pick on cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had a rough and undisciplined preseason? Can Calais Campbell do an adequate job replacing Antonio Smith at defensive end?
The Cardinals don’t have to be the Steelers or Baltimore Ravens. But they can’t be lumped in with the Bengals and Chiefs again, either. There will be Sundays when the offense struggles, when Warner isn’t sharp and touchdowns turn into field goals.
It’s on those afternoons that the defense has to win games for Arizona.
“I think we’re going to be better,” Robinson said.
We’ll find out starting Sunday. Not much is at stake.
Only the season.